Read extracts, The Snow in Kuala Lumpur, Daryl Lim
Penguin Random House SEA, 2023
'...not everyone was pleased that I was spending so much time with my uncle...
I had been awakened by low voices coming from the back stoop, just outside the house.
"It's late," Sook Sook was whispering. "What are you doing up, Kin Chew?"
"I smelled cigarettes. I came to smoke."
"I didn't know you smoked," came a chuckle. "Here, try one of mine. All the tappers in the plantation smoke these. Gudam Garang, clove cigarettes. What do you think"
After a pause, KC's voice came back. "Not bad. I used to smoke Players before. But now I switched to Viceroy. Steve McQueen smokes Viceroy brand. Thinking man's filter, smoking man's taste."
"Steve McQueen lah. The cowboy."
The soft glow of a kerosene lantern was filtering into the house from outside. Stirring on my bamboo mat, I sat up and peered through a gap in the wooden planks of the room. Sook Sook was squatting on the back steps underneath the sooty light of the lantern.
"Sounds like your English is getting good," he said. "What is that you said just now? Cow? Boy?"
"Never mind. I'll just talk Chinese."
(from 1960: Chapter Four)
'We went to a little coffee shop in Old Market Square and sat at a quiet table facing the rain-wet side street. June took the seat opposite me and dumped her accounting texts on the table.
"You shouldn't have dragged me out of class in front of everyone like that. The other girls already talk about me enough as it is."
The waiter wandered across the diner floor, pushing his mop under the tables and chairs. I ordered a couple of the tarik and the man nodded wearily and shuffled out back.
"No more games, June. It's time you took me to see my cousin."
"They say I got two boyfriends now," she grinned. "That I am some two-timer. Isn't that funny? They're just jealous, of course. Most of them can barely even one-time."
"Where is he hiding? Tell me."
She sighed and sat back, tying her hair in a ponytail. "We've been through this, Ah Tat. I promised I would never tell anyone where he stays. For his own safety. If you care about him, you'll stop asking."
'This is serious now, June. Did you know that he beat a boy so badly he lost an eye? A fourteen-year-old boy, June. Did you know that?"
She laughed. "Kin Chew? People are always saying things like that about him. None of it is true. Strictly for his reputation lah."
"The police seem to think it's true."
"An inspector came to our house the other day asking about him. Took me and my aunt into Station Street for questioning."
"What did you tell them?"
"Nothing. What could I tell them?"
"You could have told them I knew where he was," she mused aloud, and even as she uttered the words, a look of dread overtook her features. "You didn't tell them about me, did you?"
I leaned over and took her hands into mine. "I would never do that."
(from 1964: Chapter Ten)
'We continued up Birch Road, with the high walls of the Chinese Assembly Hall coming into view, when all at once it dawned on me that there was nobody out on the street. It was eerily still, the only movement a traffic light hanging over a deserted intersection that ticked from green to amber, and then amber to red. We'd walked almost halfway into town before finally getting our first glimpse of other people: two figures in the distance, running across the road—sprinting, really, as if being chased—before disappearing into a parking lot structure.
Kin Chew stopped me. "Something's not right. You hear that?"
I strained my ears, staring down at my feet.
"It's a loud-hailer," he said. "Come on."
KC started to walk quickly up the street. I hurried after him. Soon, we were both of us running.
"I don't know," he said, scanning the surroundings warily.
"Kin Chew? Why are we running?"
"I don't know lah. I don't know."
We emerged on High Street, slightly out of breath. About a block away a sizeable crowd had gathered at the police station and the sounds of activity gradually returned to fill the KL streetscape. A group of officers had corralled the agitated crowd by the station corner and one of the policemen was standing on the bonnet of his car, repeating something I couldn't quite make out over the megaphone. Behind the officers, the main road north into town had been barricaded and a queue of vehicles was being redirected into Station Street. Though there were many people, the gathering seemed oddly subdued. KC pushed through the back of the murmuring crowd. Finally, the message over the megaphone became intelligible:
"Return home quickly and calmly. News will be reported on RM and Malaysia Television. Do not form up around the police station. Return to your homes quickly and calmly."
The officer repeated the announcement in Bahasa and then Cantonese. Another policeman was translating into Tamil and Hindi. Near the front of the police station a young woman was wailing, attempting to breach the barricade; I could hear her pleading with the officers. In all the commotion I lost sight of Kin Chew as he disappeared into a clot of bystanders.
I stopped a man who was trying to leave the gathering.
"Uncle, what's happening?"
He looked at me blankly for a moment.
"What is it, uncle? What?"
He was slowly rubbing his temple, as though something had struck him in the head.
"Killings," he said dazedly.'
(from 1965: Chapter Twelve)
'Over the last few years, Hasan had indeed managed to clean up his act. Fed up with life in the slums and waking up hungover next to his uncle in their rickety tin shack on the banks of the Klang, Hasan had one day decided to visit the Social Welfare Department in order to look for work. They'd assigned a nice-looking girl to be his career counsellor and every fortnight he'd gone into the branch office in Imbi, dressed in a tie and the only business shirt he'd owned, to have the nice-looking girl enrol him in the latest employment workshop. Wadida was polite and earnest, and he liked the mild way that she scolded him into taking his life more seriously. She liked his eyes and affable nature. Before long, Hasan had started showing up to their regular appointments with a box of halwa from the Royal India sweet shop.
"Luckily lah," he'd told me at the time. "She got one hell of a sweet-tooth, that girl."
Still, Hasan could never quite manage to get Wadida to agree to see him outside the welfare offices. He began looking for ways to impress her. During their sessions, he'd made a note of the fact that she kept a prayer mat rolled up under her desk and seemed to take special pride in wearing a tudong to work—and this at a time before it had become typical for Malay women to do so. He quit drinking alcohol to show her he was the religious type and started attending Jumu'ah at the Masjid Wakaf Baru Mosque, where he knew a group of Wadida's cousins went for Friday prayers. Her cousins did little to help him with Wadida, although one of them put him up for a job at Jabatan Telekom Malaysia. Hasan started out on the switchboards at first, keeping his head down, quietly savouring the first steady paycheck of his life, and then one day saw a notice pinned to the corkboard outside the JTM engineers' lunch room:
ARE YOU UNDER 25 YEARS OLD?
SEEKING OPPORTUNITIES FOR ADVANCEMENT?
JABATAN TELEKOM MALAYSIA'S CAREER FAST-TRACK PROGRAM MAY BE FOR YOU!
CONTACT YOUR DEPARTMENT SUPERVISOR FOR MORE INFORMATION.
ONLY BUMIPUTRA NEED APPLY
Within six months of his application, Hasan had been promoted into JTM's billing department and by the end of his second year, the company had singled him out yet again, this time moving him into a junior executive training program for Bumiputras. Without realizing it, Hasan found he'd relinquished his nightly habit of smoking marijuana in favour of making it to work on time every morning. He saved enough to buy himself a little Datsun and started driving by the welfare offices to chauffeur Wadida home at the end of her shifts, getting her to laugh at his shrill falsetto while singing along to Uji Rashid and You Should Be Dancing on the car radio.'
(from 1977: Chapter Sixteen)
'A balding middle-aged man I barely recognized was waiting for me as I came out of Arrivals at Kingsford Smith Airport.
"Ah Tat,' he waved. "Lim Kin Tat. Over here."
I laughed, making my way down the ramp through the slowly dispersing crowd. He looked about thirty kilos heavier than I remembered.
"Sonny, my old friend. Sonny Tong. How long has it been? I almost didn't recognize you after all these years.You look so different."
"Ayah, no need to shout it out loud for the whole world to hear. I know, I know. I got fat and bald." He wrested the suitcase from me and started wheeling it out towards the exit. "You, on the other hand, you look the same. As trim as you were back in Boys' Brigade days. How was your flight?"
As soon as we drove out from under the tremendous shadow of the terminal, the white sun shone down bright and warm on my face. Overhead, planes were continually taking off and coming in to land, their silver underbellies glinting briefly in the light, and we passed under green signboards pointing off left and right at the pleasant-sounding suburbs: Kingsgrove and Rockdale and Earlwood, then later Enfield and Croydon, the kind of British place names that had once looked over the streets of Kuala Lumpur from similar signboards, like Mountbatten, Cecil and Birch, names that Malaysians had abandoned since Independence. Sonny came off the main road and took us through the deserted backstreets. For much of the drive, we laughed and talked over one another.
"I left London—let me see—in seventy-four. Liz wanted a change of scenery after her folks passed. They were practically begging British to come over back then, and she got family in Wollongong, so it was only natural. Anyway, there's more sun down here."
"I see you never lost your accent."
"Sure, what. Once a Malaysian, always one, isn't it?" He looked at me after a moment. "June and the kids all right?"
"On your own for this trip, are you?"
I nodded. "On my own."
We continued driving through several neighbourhoods. People were in their yards, washing cars and watering gardens. Clear pristine light dappled the windshield as we passed, flickering under tree-lined streets. The roads were everywhere quiet and clean. Sonny stopped at an intersection and turned to me.
"You still stay in Batu Road?"
I laughed. "Batu Road? No lah, many years removed from there already. It's not even called Batu Road any more. That area is all hotels and restaurants and mega-malls now. KL no more got any humble little kampongs, my friend."
"Of course, of course. I always forget how long it's been."
"And how long is that?"
He squinted. "Since I been back? Wah, since my father's funeral."
"I was sorry to hear about it. I always admired your father very much. I still shop for groceries at Tong Hing Soon & Son."
"My mother still lives in KL, with my uncles and all the kuchehs. She will never leave Malaysia. That whole generation will never leave. The rest of us young ones have packed up and shipped out already. Fast as we can."
(from 1987: Chapter Twenty-three)
'Reaching out, I tentatively put my palm against the glass. It was freezing cold. I yanked up the window frame to see what was going on and leaned out over the ledge, peering into the indigo dark. Rain was evaporating right out of the air before my eyes. The droplets were being whittled down by their plummet to the earth so that the flecks of moisture became light enough to be taken up by the feathery currents, tossed sideways and upward and round and round in whorls and spiralling drifts. The white flakes were everywhere falling from the sky.
"Is it ash?" I murmured to myself, but there was no burning in the air.
I laughed and thrust my hand out to catch the soft flakes and they danced away in a swirling puff only to have others replace them in a constant steady cascade from the firmament. I looked at my hand. The tiny crystals of ice dissolved in the heat of my palm.
It was snowing in Kuala Lumpur.'
(from 1997: Chapter Twenty-six)
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